Zone de­fenses giv­ing the Illini of­fense fits

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - By Shan­non Ryan

CHAM­PAIGN — The scene was set for a spe­cial night.

A throng of fans lined up in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures more than two hours be­fore doors opened at the State Farm Cen­ter. Illi­nois stu­dents, al­most all wear­ing script Illini throw­back jer­seys to match the team, jumped to bass-heavy songs blast­ing through the arena’s speak­ers.

The No. 20 Illini hosted No. 9 Mary­land with first place in the Big Ten on the line Fri­day. It was Illi­nois’ first game host­ing a ranked op­po­nent as a ranked team since 2013.

The Illini jumped to an early 14-point lead be­hind un­likely 3-point­ers from Da’Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhan­ishvili.

The plot fiz­zled, though, as fans filed glumly out of the arena dur­ing Mary­land’s free throws with 20 sec­onds left on its way to a 75-66 win. Illi­nois has lost two in a row af­ter seiz­ing first place in the con­fer­ence with a seven-game win­ning streak.

The Illini (16-7, 8-4 Big Ten) lost for the sec­ond time to Mary­land (19-4, 9-3), squan­der­ing a big lead each time. In both teams’ Big Ten opener on Dec. 7, Illi­nois lost a 15-point lead in a 59-58 de­feat in Col­lege Park, Md.

Mary­land is the first team to sweep Illi­nois this sea­son, a fate the Illini suf­fered af­ter a night of poor free-throw shoot­ing and a dis­as­trous sec­ond half.

Here are four take­aways from the loss.

1. Mary­land’s zone gave Illi­nois fits.

Coaches of­ten are vague when pro­vid­ing rea­sons for a re­sult. Not so on Fri­day. Mary­land coach Mark Tur­geon and Illi­nois coach Brad Un­der­wood were clear.

“The zone changed it for us,” Tur­geon said.

The Ter­rap­ins had shown its 1-3-1 zone on only one pos­ses­sion this sea­son, against In­di­ana. When Illi­nois’ hottest shooter, Trent Fra­zier, went to the bench with two fouls with 12 min­utes, 12 sec­onds left in the first half, Mary­land saw it as an in­vi­ta­tion.

“We got back in the game and made some shots, and it gave us con­fi­dence,” Tur­geon said.

The de­ci­sion also high­lighted Fra­zier’s im­por­tance to Illi­nois. The Illini led 24-12 when he was sub­sti­tuted out of the game and went into half­time lead­ing only 42-40.

“You look for stats when they play well and when they don’t play well,” Tur­geon said while mak­ing a point about Fra­zier’s im­pact. “We can’t leave that kid. We can’t let him get go­ing. He’s dy­namic. He can get go­ing. He’s the one guy who can get go­ing on 3 for them.”

Illi­nois also had strug­gled against Iowa’s zone in Sun­day’s road loss.

Against Mary­land, the Illini’s foul trou­ble forced them into some un­usual line­ups, which Un­der­wood said was the big­gest is­sue.

Un­der­wood said he wasn’t wor­ried about sit­ting Fra­zier be­cause Illi­nois was in con­trol of the game. He added, “It’s some­thing we might think about dif­fer­ently now.”

2. The Illini can’t freeze.

The trou­ble­some Mary­land zone caused Illi­nois’ lead to evap­o­rate even more af­ter half­time.

The Illini missed their first 12 shots of the sec­ond half and went eight min­utes with­out scor­ing a field goal to fall be­hind 53-44.

It was like watch­ing a cold front move in af­ter a siz­zling sum­mer day.

The Illini scored at a blis­ter­ing rate to start the game, revving up the crowd with 29 points in the first nine min­utes for a 29-15 lead.

They shot only 25.9% in the sec­ond half and 36.1% for the game. They made only 2 of 9 3-point­ers af­ter half­time.

3. Illi­nois can’t whiff at the free throw line.

Un­der­wood cor­rectly com­pared the Illini’s missed free throws to turnovers.

Illi­nois made only 14 of 24 free throws, while the Ter­rap­ins made 13 of 15. That’s 10 points they coughed up.

“You can’t miss free throws against the eighth-best team in the na­tion,” Un­der­wood said. “Those are mo­men­tum plays.”

He said it takes a cer­tain level of con­cen­tra­tion for play­ers to make free throws. Clearly the Illini were lack­ing at the line.

Giorgi Bezhan­ishvili missed all four of his free-throw at­tempts. He has made only 8 of 14 (57.1%) in Big Ten play. Kofi Cockburn made 7 of 10.

The Illini have three play­ers who shoot worse than 70% at the line: Cockburn at 68.1%, Bezhan­ishvili at 64.4% and 65.4% from Kip­per Ni­chols. They came into the game av­er­ag­ing 74% as a team but shot 58% against the Terps.

4. Pres­sure is build­ing on Illi­nois.

This five-game stretch has long stood out on Illi­nois’ sched­ule.

An eight-game stretch has long stood out as the tough­est part of Illi­nois’ sched­ule. They won the first three, at Purdue and Michi­gan and at home against Min­nesota, but have dropped their last two at Iowa and at home against Mary­land.

Illi­nois and the Ter­rap­ins came into the game tied for first place in the Big Ten. Now Mary­land stands alone in first place with the Illini tied for sec­ond with their next op­po­nent, Michi­gan State.

The glass-half-full per­spec­tive looks at Tues­day’s game in Cham­paign against the No. 11 Spar­tans as an op­por­tu­nity to re­gain foot­ing and avoid los­ing all the feel-good vibes from its strong start to con­fer­ence play that in­cluded a seven-game win­ning streak that pre­ceded the Iowa loss.

The Illini con­clude the stretch with a week on the road at Rut­gers and No. 22 Penn State.

A two-game los­ing streak is bear­able. But is a longer los­ing streak?

The end goal for Illi­nois is still a strong seed for the Big Ten Tour­na­ment and an NCAA Tour­na­ment ap­pear­ance, goals that are still well within reach.

HOLLY HART/AP

Illi­nois’ DeMonte Williams shoots a 3-pointer against Mary­land on Fri­day in Cham­paign.

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